By Jackie O’Neal
How fitting to embark on writing a spiritual autobiography during the Epiphany Season as the significance of this time is to reveal, to show, to manifest truths. The purpose here is to chronicle many “epiphanies” as concretely as possible as well as to demonstrate how Christ came to be revealed to me and in me.
What images, persons, places influenced my spiritual life during those vulnerable years? Can I even at this stage of my middle life recall anything outstanding? Naturally, I cannot recall my baptism, but can share that I was blessed indeed to have my Aunt Catalina as my godmother. She was mother’s sister and a deeply religious Roman Catholic. We were close until her death last year.
Aunt Catalina had a collection of religious items from statuary of the Blessed Mother to scapulars to artwork related to the lives of the saints that rivaled the Vatican(just a bit of hyperbole.) Some of her items were imports. One was a lovely bronze image of Mary from France, which she kept in her bedroom. She recounted a friend of hers had given it to her as a gift. I remember its beauty and uniqueness and hoping I might inherit it one day. I remember the drawing of St. Terese- the Little Flower drawn by my uncle and displayed on her wall. These particular images touched me in the sense that they had a language of their own to convey not only how essential religious relics and icons were to my family, but also the special blessings I felt by being exposed to them. Of course, owning items like these may seem superficial and even artificial. One may be led to ask: Is the collector of these items really seeking the presence of Christ? Was I seeking the presence of Christ? The answer is a resounding-Yes! I believe I was surrounded by religious items as a way for me to connect with The Holy Spirit. I know that throughout the years Aunt Catalina kept me in her prayers. She taught me the importance of daily prayer and devotions. Even today when I hold Evening Prayer, we begin with The Angeles. I’ve had a chance to teach others how to recite the Hail Mary.
Aunt Catalina lived in Argentina, so I was obliged to travel to see her and of course to correspond by letter. I wonder if she prayed to St. Teresa to watch over me, to help me in my spiritual life? I believe she did otherwise, I might not be writing this piece. I might not have found the support and nurturing I needed in the Episcopal Church so many years later.
Argentina is primarily a Roman Catholic country, so on my travels there I was always surrounded by the imagery of the faith. Upon arriving at the train station of the capital city of Buenos Aires, I was instantly greeted by the Virgin of Luan perched above.
I was separated from Catalina when my family moved to New York, but I carried her influence with me. Perhaps this was the reason I was so drawn to the mailings sent to our home by the Franciscans. I was 8 or 9 and immersed myself in reading their literature fascinated by the stories about their missionary work. That must have been the first time I took a serious look at the religious life or vocation.
I must have told anyone who would listen (not many at all) about the missionaries and how much I wanted to do the work of a missionary. I’m sure I hardly understood everything it entailed, but nevertheless I continued reading the Franciscan literature whenever it arrived at our house.
I did not meet a “real” Franciscan until I was 15. I attended St. Vincent Ferrer H.S. in NYC and we took our day long spiritual retreats with them. The experience gave me a close look into the lives and work of the Franciscans, but primarily was therapeutic in the sense that our dialogue with them was so wonderful. We knew they cared about our futures and us.
The Dominican sisters at St. Vincent’s were also smart, witty and caring role models. I remember my English teacher, Sister Marie –Bernadette. She was 85 at the time and the scandal was that she refused to retire! I would find her sometimes in the stairwell by a small window as she gazed out of it and appeared to be immersed in mental prayer. Her lips would be moving and it seemed she was whispering to someone. From her body language, I sensed a great peace comes over her. Perhaps I came into contact with the benefits of mental prayer, although it was not until 8 months ago that I began to make it my spiritual practice as an Oblate Probationer. I suppose Sister had no inkling I was observing her, getting a tiny glimpse of what a friendship with the Lord “looked like”. Had I been led by the Holy Spirit to observe her? To be moved by her private devotions in the stairwell so to inspire me to pause and to pray? Sister Maria, also a Dominican sister has taught me how to pause frequently and pray. She calls those type of prayers “heart” prayers. As an affiliate in the Order of Julian of Nouwich, I follow the Rule, which includes three hours of silent prayer. By pausing frequently throughout the day, my daily life is punctuated with prayer like Sister Marie-Bernadette’s was. Sister Marie-Bernadette showed me that one can pray anywhere as she demonstrated in the stairwell. Like her, I am an English teacher and like her, during my break between classes, I observe mental prayer. I believe she made a larger impact on my life than I imagined, but I had not realized it until now.
After High School, I studied theatre At the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. I met my singing teacher, Irma Jurist who described herself as a “born again” Christian. Although I was already a Christian, she influenced me in the sense of helping me develop a more “personal” relationship with the Lord and shared with me her controversial ideas about gazing at religious icons as being connected to idolatry. Of course, I took this with a grain of salt. During that time, I read extensively- books such as The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis to William Law’s work to the mystical writings of Jacob Boemhe. I began attending Irma’s parish, All People’s Church. Being very young, I was drawn to the excitement in the Pentecostal Church. Flowing out of this experience came others like attending “tent” meetings given by a “fire and brimstone” minister, Brother Shambach. He preached about “getting saved” in a distinct Southern drawl. People came not only to connect with the Lord, but also to be freed from illnesses. Usually these events lasted a week or more. I attended every meeting and heard pilgrims speak in tongues and “dance” in the Spirit. Eventually, the poor souls would collapse into the arms of an assistant dressed all in white. I suppose they were “body’ catchers- that was their job at the tent meeting. I heard testimonies about how “demons” resembling frogs had jumped out of heroin addicts and how the lame walked or nearly walked, I suppose. It was all very dynamic, exciting and drew me closer and closer to the Lord.
So much so that even though I was baptized, I was invited to be submerged in a pool of water fully clothed. I felt a renewed commitment and remained at the meeting in my soaking wet clothes finding it very exciting indeed.
I continued to pray and read during that time. I read the Bible over and over form cover to cover and would discuss my readings with my teacher, Irma. I attended Bible Study, but being young, I was also arrogant and did not always agree with what I perceived were “pedestrian” interpretations. After all, I was a future English teacher-don’t forget. I read between the lines for meaning.
Mother was not pleased with me at that time. She claimed my faith had made me too “obsessive’”. She felt I was neglecting other parts of my life such as assisting her around the home. I was categorically kicked out. Needless to say, I was thrilled because I realized like the early Christians, I was being “persecuted” for my faith, so I moved in with my father.
There was another complication in my life then. My boyfriend, an NYU student, was Jewish. During that time, I helped him acknowledge Christ and his family was also not happy with me, hence more persecution- and I was not getting royalties from All People’s Church for bringing him to the Lord! What followed was an early marriage, which lasted five years.
Those were my early beginnings- not exactly earth shattering,but I will say my true epiphany came when I was brought into the Episcopal Church, particularly The Cathedral of St. John the Divine- a place I often frequented for prayer and meditation.
I was confirmed in 2002 by Bishop Donavan at St. Augustine’s parish in NYC. I believe the blessing given by the Bishop changed my life and allowed me to embrace my vocation at last.
I have come into contact with so many outstanding priests in the Episcopal Church including Father Smith of Ascension, Father Harvey of St. Augustine’s, NYC and Storm Swaine , Rev. Lynn Collins and Rev. Anne Brewer as well as Rev. Kowalski, her husband. They all made a positive impression upon me because of their professionalism, education, and skills and seemed as if they were embodiments of God’s love by their gentle comportment. One day, Storm came to our house to give a house blessing. I felt her love for God’s creatures as well as her work. I’m clear that her blessing cleared any negativity that might have resided there. I knew also that I must do God's work and I began to hear that still, small voice more clearly.
It is appropriate to reflect on where I am now in the spiritual walk. Obviously, I am thankfully in the process of discernment so that I may continue to embrace the call finally, now at this moment when I find I have sufficient support and nurturing from the Episcopal Church.
How did I come upon the Order of Julian of Norwich? Was Julian seeking me or was I seeking Julian? One day, on a visit to General Episcopal Seminary to inquire about admissions, I found myself wandering through the bookstore. As my eyes were scanning the shelves, I was riveted to a slim volume Revelations of Divine Love. Mother Julian’s work- and the only copy in the store! The life and work of a 14th Century anchoress seemed intriguing. Where might reading her work lead me? I learned that the Order was founded in 1985. Needless to say, I bought the book and was admitted in July 2004. Since then I’ve been studying her work and tackling all the requirements of living the Rule. I feel having a spiritual discipline gives structure to my life and reflecting on how this process has changed me month to month in my Oblate reports is also formative. After seven months, I have noted a few changes- less perfectionistic, competitive- more needing to pray, to let go of self, to seek the Lord’s presence and as Sister Maria says: “to pray often and from the heart.” Most of all, I know I’m on the right path now. I lift my heart in gratitude.
I reflect on the special grace by the divine will that I have been given to embark on the journey the priesthood. I’ve heard it said, that not all who embark on the journey, finish the journey, however as an act of obedience to God, I am following the call knowing in my heart, I am in His hands.
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